We Can Do Better: Comments at KM4Dev Knowledge Cafe #10 on "Uncomfortable Truths in Development"

Here are my remarks from the November 19, 2020 KM4Dev Knowledge Cafe #10 on “Uncomfortable Truths in Development,” with thanks to co-panelists Sarah Cummings, Ann Hendrix-Jenkins and Kishor Pradhan, moderated by Gladys Kemboi.

I want to say a bit about what we can do differently, and better, specifically as knowledge workers, to address the uncomfortable truths and supremacy models the other panelists have so eloquently critiqued. And in particular, I want to give a couple of examples to illustrate my point that there are alternatives available to us now, today -- we don’t have to wait to do better. 

As knowledge workers, whether or not we bring awareness and intentionality to this fact, we grapple with power dimensions inherent in norms and hierarchies around

  1. Types of knowledge and the status of evidence (what “counts” as evidence, what kinds of evidence are valued)
  2. Sources of knowledge (whose knowledge is seen as important, how credibility is defined)
  3. Engaging knowledge-holders inclusively (whose knowledge is valued in the sense that they get to participate in decisions)

And just as supremacy can embed in any or all of these -- supremacy can be countered in all of these:

Types of knowledge that are valued and the status of evidence. Instead of embracing a linear continuum in which evidence that is proven using scientific methods is seen as the strongest and best evidence, and experience is seen as weakest or dismissed altogether, we can instead consider all the types of evidence available, what questions each type is useful for answering, and the particular role for each type -- and draw on them accordingly. And as we do so, we can also notice -- and intentionally mitigate -- how the ways that types of knowledge are valued unevenly tend to align with systems of power and privilege. We can ask ourselves, what’s considered “best,” how does that valuation reinforce the dominance of developed country paradigms, and how does that mute perspectives that come from developing communities? 

Sources of knowledge. This is linked to types of knowledge, and gets at whose knowledge is valued as legitimate, as well as the critically important question: Why don’t we routinely begin with the knowledge, ideas and priorities of developing country communities?

Engaging knowledge-holders inclusively. We have available to us, and should be drawing upon, a synthesized assessment of our efforts from a large number of people on the receiving end of them, in the form of Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid (free download at the link). This is the  product of the CDA Collaborative’s listening project that engaged 6000 people in 125 organisations in 20 countries. The book argues strongly for cumulative experience as a type of high-quality -- in fact, essential -- knowledge. And it demonstrates an intentional listening methodology that explicitly mitigates the interviewers’ biases to ensure that respondents’ views are clearly understood and respectfully considered. What happens when you use that approach? Lo and behold, a resounding consensus on what’s needed, i.e., to move from an “externally driven aid system” to a “collaborative aid system.” See the table in Chapter 12 for a concise comparison of these two systems, and you’ll see the resonance of so many important debates that have taken place in the aid sector over several decades.

You’ll also see clear, concrete recommendations for how to move from the one to the other -- these include: 

  • Collaborating with “Local” colleagues as drivers of their own development
  • Focusing on reinforcing local capacities and existing strengths 
  • Making decisions collaboratively 
  • And fitting money and timing to strategy, and not the other way around.

A second example: The End of the Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South, by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, goes beyond welcoming in the knowledge of people in developing communities, to combining it with “Western” frameworks to advance substantive change. In just one example, the author describes how in Ecuador, activists combined Western cultural elements of “constitutional protections” and non-Western cultural elements of “nature as the source of all rights” to enshrine the rights of nature in the Constitution. This enabled activists to secure environmental protections on grounds that were already accepted and embraced locally -- a clear instance of strategically leveraging local frameworks for local benefit.

Third and finally, Linda Tuhiwai Smith (author of Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples) and Fiona Cram have articulated a set of Kaupapa Maori principles for research and evaluation. These can be summarized as: 

  • Build reciprocal, culturally respectful relationships 
  • Be generous with knowledge and ensure it flows both ways 
  • Engage with people on their own terms 
  • Show humility when sharing knowledge 
  • Respect people’s authoritative knowledge about their own lives 
  • Look, listen, and then speak -- understand before judging 
  • Be cautious so as not to abuse or ignore insider and outsider status 
  • Be familiar -- get to know communities in which you work

There are many more (and more specific articulations of) practical approaches that are available to us as we commit to decolonizing aid and countering supremacy in development, working with and through local communities in support of their priorities and in ways that value and foreground their frameworks and knowledge. 

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